June 15, 2024
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Kidnapping: What Nigeria could learn from Colombia

…How South American country overcame kidnapping, armed banditry and terrorists

Kidnapping and banditry have combined to form the shape of a national epidemic, as they have eaten into every fabric of about 20 states. A signature of Boko Haram insurgency, which has engulfed the country since 2009, kidnapping for ransom and the killing of innocent Nigerians are commonplace in all many northern states. They have turned into multi-billion Naira criminal enterprise as groups negotiate and collect ransom in millions of Naira from victims, whether highly or lowly-placed. Recently, the Chairman of the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC), Dr Mohammad Mahmood Abubakar, was kidnapped with his daughter on Abuja-Kaduna highway in broad daylight. He was not released until he was said to have paid millions of Naira as ransom. Schoolgirls, traditional rulers, House of Representatives members, religious leaders, businessmen, peasants… have been kidnapped. The criminals do not discriminate along social, ethnic or religious lines. They abduct and collect ransom from anyone captured by their agents on the prowl on rural and urban roads. Though President Muhammadu Buhari has held constant strategic meetings with the country’s service chiefs, Nigerians are yet to enjoy the positive outcome of such high-profile meetings – they have not led to a halt in criminal activities of kidnappers and bandits. Rather, there seems to be an upsurge in criminal exploits, as the groups become more daring by the day.

The situation was worse in Colombia, but they overcame:

For five decades Colombia, a South American country, battled kidnappers, armed bandits, terrorists, and drug barons who held a section of the country hostage. The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Ejercotp de Liberacion Nacional (National Liberation Army) and Ejercito Popular de Liberacion (Popular Liberation Army), among smaller groups wreaked havoc in many parts of the country.
Explaining the extent of the havoc, a former Chief of Staff to a Colombian president and former Defense Minister, Juan Carlos Pinzon Bueno, described the situation thus: “At that time it was as if the entire country was being held hostage by FARC: people were kidnapped in the cities, roads were too dangerous to drive, the guerrillas were blowing up bridges and power lines and taking towns – in a period of two years they captured 350 towns, destroying everything and removing all state presence, including police and other departments.” The criminals extorted corporate organisations by compelling them to pay money into the coffers of FARC to prevent the kidnap of their staff or damage to their facilities. Colombian government engaged in various approaches to deal with the situation including the setting up of self-defense forces, negotiations, peace talks, non-military activities, ransom insurance covers, etc. The 1990s were the most traumatic for Colombians as even minors were kidnapped for ransom. Between 1994 and 1999, about 966 minors were kidnapped, 667 of them were younger than 12 years old. It was so bad. However, between 1999 and 2015, Colombian governments embarked on various measures, which pushed back FARC, led to the reclaim of territories, and the substantial defeat of the group. Juan Carlos Pinzon Bueno discussed those measures in a book entitled A Great Perhaps?: Colombia: Conflict and Convergence, which is authored by four researchers.

Below are some of the steps taken by Colombia which led to a successful prosecution of the war against those criminal elements. Nigeria could adopt some of them:

1. Operation Recover Colombian Territory:

For three decades, FARC controlled the area around Bogota and the eastern part of Antioqua (Medelin). Years of dialogue and peace talks did not convince FARC to leave the area. Therefore, in 1999 government decided to take the fight to the terrorists in the areas they controlled in an attempt to recover these territories from FARC. With a great measure of success, the Colombian army sacked the terror groups from many of the cities they held hostage, leaving them without a territory. FARC had to take to guerrilla attacks, because its supposed army had been decimated. This initial step helped to boost the people’s confidence in government, seeing that “their surroundings were free, their roads were finally safe,” and that their economic assets were protected.

Unless Nigeria’s security agencies reclaim the country’s rural areas from bandits, it will be difficult to halt kidnapping, killings and mayhem across Nigeria. At the moment, security agencies are working in few urban centres and guarding high networth individuals in the society. Government should come up with a strategy that would help reclaim territories from under bandits, so as to give the people in those areas a measure of confidence to support further actions.

2. Massive recruitment of soldiers:

The former Defense Minister said “we increased our manpower substantially, year-by-year, giving us the opportunity to not only push the guerrilla out, but also hold the areas taken.” This point, too, is critical, because over the years some of the gains made by Nigerian army were lost quickly because of shortage of manpower. Territories reclaimed by the army were lost to Boko Haram because of the lack of soldiers to maintain order in liberated territories. Over the last 10 years since the country has been battling Boko Haram, and since 2014 when herders/farmers conflict escalated, government is supposed to have recruited many youths into the army, air force, navy and even the police. Unless this is done, the forces on the frontline could get worn-out of battle and begin to underperform. It would also give Boko Haram and other criminal elements the opportunity to return to areas from where they were sacked. If they return they would unleash a much more vicious terror on the people.

3. Capacity Building:

Colombia used the support it received from the United States to boost the capacity of its army. One area of capacity improvement was with air mobility; better intelligence gathering mechanism, how to conduct special operations, and enhancing the training capacity of its soldiers. Under intelligence gathering, for instance, the army made use of modern technology in tracking the movement of FARC troops. The army enhanced local and regional intelligence gathering mechanism, which enabled them to gather information from communities in Colombia and other South American States. In terms of special operation, their Joint Task Force (JTF) planned many operations together and executed them together. This way, the expertise of each security agency was brought into the planning and execution of special operations against FARC. The forces fighting Boko Haram definitely need to do a lot of capacity building. The air mobility would need to be improved upon as the constant crashes of Air Force helicopters have proved that either those helicopters were not in good conditions before they were taken to battle or that their pilots needed more training. Also, four years after President Buhari instructed security agency to maintain one central command, joint operations have not been successful, an indication that security agencies are not working in unison. Intelligence gathering is apparently very weak because Boko Haram and bandits have continued to attack army formations, taking the soldiers unaware. Also, when kidnappers abduct Nigerians and use telecommunications facilities to carry out negotiations, security operatives are at a loss. The criminals would make away with ransom money for weeks before the special team in Inspector General of Police’s office track and make some arrests. With improved technology, intelligence gathering by security agencies would be more precise and prevent the extortion of ransom from victims.

4. Target leaders of FARC for elimination:

Another strategy that weakened the criminals was the elimination of what Colombians called High-Value Targets (HVT). Under this approach the army destroyed FARC’s military assets, bombed their camps, and got to their leaders. It was tagged ‘war on camps’. The army killed some of the drug and weapons traffickers who financed FARC; some commanders, the leaders of the urban militia, and members of the seven-person FARC secretariat. The former Defense minister remarked that “we defeated their aura of vulnerability – FARC had claimed that their leadership could never be touched, and we proved them wrong.”
In the last few years, Nigeria’s security operatives have captured many Boko Haram commanders, but core leaders of the sect remain at large. Abubakar Shekau is neither captured nor killed. Kidnap kingpins are yet to be arrested or even killed. The masterminds of herders/farmers conflicts, who are believed to be foreigners, have not been arrested. Bandits of various shades are said to enter into Nigeria, kill people, burn down communities and disappear into thin air. This way, these commanders live to fight another day, motivating their foot soldiers to wreak more havoc on the people. Until Nigeria’s security agencies take out the leaders of the criminal gangs, the fight against bandits will not be won.

5. Civilians Buy-in into the fight against FARC

Some soldiers in the Colombian army engaged in what was tagged ‘false positive.’ It had to do with extrajudicial killings of civilians by security forces. The military authorities made sure that soldiers who engaged in ‘false positive’ were punished, and seen to have been punished. This restored the people’s confidence in the operation. With this, Colombian people poured into the street to denounce FARC publicly, thereby boosting the army’s morale.
In Nigeria, the people are in support of military operations against bandits, but they have not trooped out to speak out against Boko Haram. Security agencies need to do more to win the hearts of the people to the point of organising peaceful demonstrations against the activities of bandits, kidnappers, and terrorists. The major campaign in Nigeria during this insurgency remains the ‘Bring Back Our Girls,’ daily sit in in Abuja to protest the abduction of Chibok Girls in 2014. A rally against terror organisations will demoralise criminals, as they would realise how unpopular they have become in the sight of the people.

6. Wealth Tax:

As the war led to an increase in defense budget, and foreign aid dwindled, Colombia had to return to the people for support, in what was called ‘wealth tax.’ It was a special tax on capital expenditure which made it possible to raise 0.06 per cent of the country’s GDP to fund the war. Through wealth tax, the army received cash that enable them to procure new equipment and boost the morale of soldiers on the field. The Defense Minister said, with wealth tax, “We were able to buy more helicopters, to modernise some of the old assets and to buy new ones. To coin a phrase, the armed forces perceived a ‘war dividend.’” The people of Colombia demonstrated that they owned the war against terrorists.
The Nigerian government may not resort to ‘wealth tax,’ but it is imperative to think outside the box on how to finance the war against terrorists, bandits, militant herders, and kidnappers. When a war is prolonged, it could have negative effects on the economy, as funds needed to provide vital infrastructure would be channelled into counter-terrorism activities.

7. Acquisition of advanced technology:

The Colombian army acquired new technology. Among them were imagery and signals technology for intelligence. “The intelligence technology certainly enhanced our performance, but the acquisition and deployment of precision munitions was a game-changer,” the Defense Minister explained.
It is not clear if Nigeria’s security agencies have ‘imagery and signals technology,’ to handle the sophistication in the activities of bandits. Unfortunately, with the kind of money kidnappers extort from victims as ransom, they could match security agencies intelligence-for-intelligence. This calls for an improvement on intelligence technology of the military in order to be five steps ahead of the capacity of these criminals.

8. Strategic Review and Innovation:

FARC changed tactics in reaction to the exploits made by the Colombian army. In order to deal with the change of tactics, the army had to set up the Committee of Strategic Review and Innovation (CREI). It’s task was to collate every bit of information on FARC base areas. At this time, FARC had begun to employ guerrilla tactics. They were scattered all over the place, operating in cells.
To deal with the current insecurity, government needs to study the activities and strategies of bandits. It is not clear if security agencies debrief kidnap victims to know the mindset and strategies of the criminals. If they do, such details would be vital for a clear understanding of the groups and how to counter their activities. In Nigeria, unfortunately, when a criminal group emerges it expands with time, defying security agencies, instead of being decimated. Government needs to study and understand every criminal gang that rears up its ugly head in Nigeria to enable security agencies deconstruct their policies and schemes, and defeat them.

9. Better military-civilian relationship:

As the Colombian army chased FARC fighters from enclaves the terror group previously controlled, soldiers engaged in activities that supported the welfare of the people and infrastructure in those areas. Military engineers were involved in rebuilding and rehabilitation of infrastructure in communities where they operate.
The Nigerian army has embarked on similar activities, but it is not clear if they have made the kind of impact necessary to win the hearts of the people. Perhaps, the military needs to channel some of its funds to repair of infrastructure in areas they have captured from under the control of Boko Haram.

10. Taking ownership of the crisis:

The Defense Minister said the Colombian army/authorities took ownership of the national crisis. No conspiracy theories; no blame-game, or claims that some foreign powers wanted to sabotage Colombia. He said, “Colombians recognised that we had a national crisis, that others – like the US – were willing to help us with, but we first had to help ourselves, to take ownership of the problem, and only then did we begin to turn things around.” Colombians looked inward and developed a strategy in which government, people and the army worked together to deal with the national crisis.
In Nigeria, banditry, kidnapping, and terrorism are seen as northern problems by some elements. Even governments worked with irrational conspiracy theories of traditional institutions and political forces being behind bandits. Such escapist positions may not help in dealing with the situation. If the current situation is not seen as a national crisis, and if government fails to rein in all segments of the Nigerian society to deal with the situation, the insurgency may live with the county for many decades.

Bueno’s piece is found in A Great Perhaps? Colombia: Conflict and Convergence, written by Dickie Davis, David Kilcullen, Greg Mills and David Spencer.

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